Education for Today: Ecological Literacy

What is education for?

When he wrote his article “What is Education For?” David Orr was ahead of his time (though I wish it didn’t have to be so). His prophetic call to the education system was to help retrain our way of thinking about how we use nature. Unfortunately, the issues he addressed still endanger us more than twenty years later.

David Orr’s writings are propelled by a deep concern for the collision course that human society and biodiversity are on. His response to the question “what is education for?” in today’s world, would be to design with Earth in mind and foster ecological literacy:

If today is a typical day on planet Earth . .  . Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.

The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.

It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In Wiesel’s words: “It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.

What went wrong with contemporary culture and with education? There is some insight in literature: Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, who trades his soul for knowledge and power; Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who refuses to take responsibility for his creation; Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, who says “All my means are sane, my motive and object mad.” In these characters we encounter the essence of the modern drive to dominate nature.

Orr gets to the heart of what is happening in education and culture: Western societies are on the wrong path practically and educationally. The West perpetrates attractive illusions of mass comfort, pleasure, and well-being, doing so by recklessly and unsustainably destroying the productive potential of huge regions across the earth. Developing societies are eager to tread in the footsteps of the West. They are following an unstable example and, furthermore, are guided with a measure of coercion from bodies like the WTO and IMF.

We need to be ecologically literate. Proper ecological literacy educates away from subordinating, colonialist beliefs about nature.

Proper ecological literacy does not stop at small, partly token measures. Green widgets and recycling bins nevertheless continue to legitimise and excessive production and consumption. Greater reinvention is required to transform the human landscape before desensitization sets us in rigor mortis.

An age of information and denial

We are in an age of information, and yet we are more confused than ever about how to put information into practice, as though paralyzed. Health and comfort are the standards to attain, meanwhile the earth is more toxic than ever before.

Denial is a barricade in the way of ecological sensibility. Orr identifies six evidences of ecological denial:
1. Denying the limit of human wants and the use of our earth
2. Unreasonable standards of proof are demanded for the existence of impending or occurring environmental catastrophe
3. Unwarranted inferences are drawn from disconnected sources about scarcities
4. Ridicule and ad hominem attacks are used on figures who call for ecological sanity
5. Unresolved confusion over timelines and extents
6. Unwillingness of policy makers to face complex environmental issues

Learning environments

Orr calls us to examine the places where education takes place and the manner in which they prepare young people for the future.

Environments make a deep imprint on their inhabitants. Pause to ponder how some schools could be prisons without too drastic a transformation. The heating, lighting, and building materials are little different. Are we shocked at the amount of behavioural issues that result from our “education”?

The environment cannot speak for itself. Mindless doublespeak about our environments needs confronting. Naysayers to environmentally-sensitive economies disregard the history of innovation finding more efficient ways to do things, not to mention contemporary success stories in energy, transport, living space, permaculture, and more.

Change, or else

Finally, we must be open to change or we will trap and damage our children in destructive systems. We must rid ourselves of a nutritional economy that encourages obesity, a materials economy that fosters waste, toxicity, and apathy, and an entertainment economy that stifles profundity.

We must alter our social system that is bankrupt of alternatives to global environmental risks, reinvent our disconnected and sterilised education and a compartmentalised job market, and confront our cultural system that labels current conditions as anomalies rather than systemic results. We need to actually plan for well being. Believing means doing.